In Fear Of A Punk Decade, the punk/hardcore/emo explosion of the ’90s is revisited, remembered, and reassessed, year by year.
My world was coming to an end in 1999. And Jimmy Eat World was the band destroying it.
Fear Of A Punk Decade debuted last July, and since then I’ve mentioned Jimmy Eat World quite a few times. For a group that was virtually unknown throughout the ’90s, it encompasses so much of what was essential about the decade’s punk scene. Formed in 1993, the Arizona foursome started out playing snotty, speedy pop-punk just as that sound was beginning to take hold on a generation of kids. From there, the band got more melodic. Then it began dabbling in post-hardcore and emo. By the time Jimmy Eat World’s major-label debut, Static Prevails, came out in 1996, the group wasn’t even recognizable as the one that had recorded those raw, sloppy, generic songs only a few years earlier. Static Prevails flopped. At the time, it seemed as though any punk band with a pulse could get some kind mainstream attention, although Static Prevails’ post-hardcore sound wasn’t made in a vacuum, but built on the tense, dynamic racket many bands had been developing for the entirety of the decade to that point. 1999’s Clarity was Jimmy Eat World’s last-ditch attempt to hit the big time, and it too failed—so horribly that the band was dropped from its label, Capitol.
By all accounts, Jimmy Eat World was a done deal in 1999, just another casualty of the ’90s punk-rock meat grinder. But Clarity had already done its damage. Many who had been listening to the band for years were shocked by the album’s ambition, its immaculate production, its lushness, its atmosphere. Some listeners, myself included, hated it at first before coming around. Sure, there were hints of the old, post-hardcore Jimmy Eat World in tracks like “Your New Aesthetic” and “Crush.” The latter was even a re-recording of the group’s earlier song “Secret Crush,” which had appeared on a 1997 split single with fellow emo bands Sense Field and Mineral. It bothered me to hear one of my favorite Jimmy Eat World songs—one that I’d seen played live many times, always with fire and feeling—made less raw, more pretty. More than that, though, it bothered me to hear emo being tidied up in an attempt to court the masses. Being from Denver, I felt an extra sting when I heard Clarity’s obvious ploy for radio play, the single “Lucky Denver Mint.” At the same time, I had to admit, “What a goddamn song.” It’s as if Joshua Tree-era U2 had somehow mated with all my favorite melodic emo bands of the ’90s, from Christie Front Drive to Texas Is The Reason. The difference was, most of those bands had hit a brick wall, broken up, and fallen by the wayside. Jimmy Eat World had the gall to survive.
Survival was on a lot of people’s minds in 1999. Looking back, the entire Y2K phenomenon may seem comical, particularly compared to the very real horror that was soon to happen on 9/11. But even for those of us who weren’t particularly paranoid about the possibility that all the world’s computers might crash at the stroke of midnight on January 1, 2000, the future did indeed seem to be barreling down at us. I talked in last month’s column about the futurism that popped up everywhere in the punk scene in 1998. By 1999, that enthusiasm was in a holding pattern. Things everywhere seemed to be changing. In 1999, Napster was launched, allowing fans unprecedented access to music—an innovation that should have been a boon to punks, but came with legitimate qualms about how artists, especially smaller ones, could continue to draw some modicum of income from their music. Also that year, LiveJournal and Blogger came into being, giving blogging a kick in the pants and opening the door for punk blogs to proliferate. And it was the year a website named Punknews.org was founded, the largest and longest-running one of the many punk-centric websites that have sprung up over the past 15 years.
Jimmy Eat World wasn’t the only veteran of the ’90s punk scene that was trying to adapt to this new reality of punk. AFI, as I’ve mentioned before, started out as an utterly mediocre band: not quite punk, not quite hardcore, not quite catchy, not quite angry. Something had come over the group as the ’90s had progressed—and the first leg of that unlikely journey culminated in 1999’s Black Sails In The Sunset. A band that had once sounded, at best, charmingly goofy decided to tap into some latent Danzig fetish, crafting a mix of goth, metallic punk, post-hardcore, and melodramatic gestures that was completely unique in the admittedly confused atmosphere of 1999. That said, it was bracing to hear AFI in mid-metamorphosis, although no one at the time—perhaps not even the band itself—had any idea just how huge it would become in the next century.
Unlike AFI, Blink-182 had already tasted success. But the commercial triumph of 1997’s Dude Ranch was just the beginning; 1999 saw the release of Enema Of The State, the group’s debut with its new drummer, a kid named Travis Barker who’d previously played in the gimmicky, costumed ska-punk band The Aquabats. Together, this new lineup continued its upward arc into the mainstream stratosphere, manufacturing Vans Tour-friendly pop-punk that made Green Day sound like GG Allin by comparison. And others were hot on Blink-182’s heels. Yellowcard was still a few years away from its own platinum-selling success, 2003’s Ocean Avenue, but it was already revving the engines with its 1999 full-length, Where We Stand. Meanwhile, The Ataris’ second album, Blue Skies, Broken Hearts… Next Two Exits, drew increasing attention to a band that, along with the likes of Blink-182 and Yellowcard, would soon be vying with pop-punk newcomers like Good Charlotte and Sum 41.
Pop-punk had come a long way throughout the ’90s—but it went out on a bland note compared to the intriguing things that were happening elsewhere in the scene. The crossover between pop-punk and emo had begun in earnest in 1997 with The Promise Ring’s Nothing Feels Good, Tuesday’s Early Summer, and The Get Up Kids’ Four Minute Mile. In 1999, however, two bands were combining that heartfelt buzz with the more muscular, melodic hardcore of the late, great Lifetime: Saves The Day and New Found Glory, who issued Through Being Cool and Nothing Gold Can Stay, respectively, in 1999. Both bands would become incalculably influential in the 21st century, as well as becoming vastly popular in their own right. They weren’t the only bands taking emo to new places in ’99. Grade managed to retain some of its scream-laden hardcore roots while pushing the hooks in deep with Under The Radar, and Engine Down—featuring frontman Keeley Smith, later of the At The Drive-In offshoot Sparta—veered closer to post-hardcore on its taut, gorgeous, 1999 album, Under The Pretense Of Present Tense. One band, though, gathered up all the strengths of ’90s emo and post-hardcore and shaped them into something that could weather the coming millennial storm: Thursday. The group’s 1999 debut album, Waiting, introduced the world to lead singer Geoff Rickly’s melancholy, confessional delivery—one that was destined for even greater things to come.
The revolution in hardcore that kicked into gear in 1998—led by Botch, Converge, Cave In, and Drowningman—found a bizarre brother-in-arms in 1999: Dillinger Escape Plan. While cut from a similar cloth as the era’s leading noise technicians, Dillinger stretched that template to an extreme on its intricate yet ballistic first full-length, Calculating Infinity. The more streamlined contingent of hardcore, on the other hand, was being upheld on the East Coast by Bane—featuring one of Converge’s guitarists at the time, Aaron Dalbec—on its inaugural album, It All Comes Down To This. On the opposite side of the country, Death By Stereo’s If Looks Could Kill, I’d Watch You Die brought a sense of both humor and bloodshot intensity to West Coast hardcore. Down in Florida, Poison The Well weighed in with its groundbreaking metalcore debut from 1999, The Opposite Of December—but it was Orchid’s Chaos Is Me that proved to be one of the most striking hardcore releases of the year. With alternating passages of darkened quietude and hackle-raising dissonance, the album not only reinforced the presence of screamo in the scene, its inventiveness and passion helped set in motion a revival of the subgenre a decade later.
The ill-fated presidential election of 2000 was still a year away, but political awareness was already starting to see an upsurge in punk in 1999. The scabrous yet anthemic outfit Choking Victim—one of the few credible heirs in the ’90s to Operation Ivy’s seminal ska-punk legacy—unleashed its posthumous, message-heavy classic No Gods, No Managers. And in Pennsylvania, two very different bands from two very different cities made potent statements of political intent: Philadelphia’s Kill The Man Who Questions with the scathing Sugar Industry, and Pittsburgh’s Anti-Flag with A New Kind Of Army. Of the two, Anti-Flag had been around longer and seemed most likely to last—and sure enough, the band went on to far greater gains in the ’00s, even though its cartoonish image clashed with its provocative name, which became 10 times as much of a lightning rod in the hyper-patriotic atmosphere following 9/11.
Less incendiary but far more companionable, The Lawrence Arms’ A Guided Tour Of Chicago remains one of 1999’s best punk debuts. Explosive, catchy, and bursting with the kind of ragged, pop-punk storytelling that many bands would pick up on in the coming years, it’s a record that represents the best of ’90s punk, even as it elbowed the decade out the door. American Steel’s moody, gruff, underrated 1999 album Rogue’s March is similar in that regard, as are the standouts from the No Idea Records camp that year: Small Brown Bike’s gritty Our Own Wars—an example of the Hot Water Music-influenced wave of groups that were starting to take hold across the country and that would eventually give birth to more polished acts like The Gaslight Anthem—and Twelve Hour Turn’s edgier, post-hardcore-inflected The Victory Of Flight. The most refreshing band out of that tight-knit sub-scene, however, is This Bike Is A Pipe Bomb. Hailing from Pensacola and wielding a proud folk streak, the shambolic, jangling of the band’s 1999 album, Dance Party With…, either directly or indirectly energized hundreds of likeminded folk-punks, including a fellow Floridian outfit that had yet to released its debut album: Against Me!.
Laura Jane Grace, the leader of Against Me!, made a powerful statement earlier this year with the group’s sixth album, Transgender Dysphoria Blues. There wasn’t as much attention paid to the legendary—and legendarily overlooked—Sarah Kirsch, who played in numerous punk bands starting in the ’80s until her death in 2012. Kirsch had not yet publicly identified as being transgender in 1999, when two of her best bands, Torches To Rome and Bread And Circuits, released self-titled albums. Kirsch’s best-known group prior to these albums, Fuel (not to be confused with alt-rock group of the same name), was ahead of its time in the early ’90s, and the same could be said of Torches To Rome and Bread And Circuits. Poetic yet pulverizing, desperate yet empowering, Kirsch’s one-two punch in ’99 solidified her legacy as a prime mover of ’90s punk—in spite of staying steadfastly underground.
Kirsch had come of age in the Bay Area punk scene of the late ’80s and early ’90s alongside future stars such as Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong—Kirsch and Armstrong even played together in the side project Pinhead Gunpowder—but it was another Bay Area-spawned architect of ’90s punk, Operation Ivy’s frontman Jesse Michaels, who would make a long-awaited comeback in 1999. Operation Ivy broke up in 1989, before the group had the chance to enjoy the cult-like adoration that almost immediately followed. Half of the members of Operation Ivy had famously formed Rancid and morphed into one of the first platinum-selling punk groups of the ’90s. But barring the short-lived outfit Big Rig, Michaels all but disappeared in the ’90s, when he had the most to gain as the former voice of Operation Ivy.
So when Michaels—the veritable J.D. Salinger of ’90s punk—made a comeback in 1999 with Last Wave Rockers, the debut by Common Rider, it was a big deal. The problem is, the album didn’t live up to expectations; rather than being the second coming of Operation Ivy, it felt like a warmed-up leftover of the same ska-punk shtick, at a time when bands like Against All Authority and Choking Victim were flogging that horse a lot more vigorously. Looking back, Last Wave Rockers never got its due. It’s mellower and tighter than Operation Ivy, sure, but it’s also packed with infectious, soulful songs. In the chorus of “Carry On,” Michaels sings, “Come carry on / ’Til the night’s all gone / Come carry on / Come right where we belong.” After an entire decade on the down-low, the prodigal son—or rather, the absentee father—of ’90s punk had returned. In the meantime, he’d clearly been humbled, even as he glanced backward with bruised pride at the full circle he’d just spent an entire decade traveling along.
As human beings, we love finding patterns in our arbitrary measurements of time. Decades, centuries, and millennia are assumed to have identities distinct from those on either side of them. Pedantically speaking, the end of the ’90s was neither the end of the century nor the end of the millennium—that came at the close of 2000—but for all intents and purposes, we as a society imagined we were about to feel the zeitgeist shift beneath our feet on Y2K. And hopefully that shift wasn’t going to open a gaping hole in civilization that would swallow us all.
As I said before, I wasn’t some Y2K alarmist. I had no stockpile of guns and food. I couldn’t have afforded one anyway. I was still working at an independent record store, still touring with my go-nowhere band, and still living as if I were a 17-year-old in the year 1990. No, Y2K didn’t scare me at all. But Clarity did. Even though the album didn’t go anywhere, it was obvious that Jimmy Eat World had outgrown the punk scene we’d all come up in. The guys in Jimmy Eat World weren’t the only ones. So many friends of mine had moved on. Some had gone away to grad school. Others had gotten real jobs. A few had gone the opposite direction and doubled down on punk, putting so much of a focus on their bands and/or labels that they were in the studio or on the road constantly, doing their best to make a modest living from music—a notion that seemed antithetical to punk to so many of us just a few years earlier.
What I was most afraid of losing, though, was punk itself. The music had mutated so much over the course of the decade. So had the subculture surrounding it. Punk was now everywhere, and thanks to LiveJournal, Blogger, Napster, Punknews.org, and the overall quantum leap in Internet culture circa 1999, it would never be the same. It was already becoming less necessary to go to a show to meet fellow punk fans, or to pour through someone’s moldy stack of zines in order to find out about bands. Even more profound, it was starting to became harder to feel alienated—or at the very least, that alienation was finding a different way to manifest itself, one that didn’t seem curable by catching a five-band, five-dollar punk show in some VFW down the street. Horizons were being broadened. The economy of punk was in flux. We didn’t even know what the 21st century as a whole would look like, let alone punk-2K. With that uncertainty came opportunity. There were hordes of young punk, hardcore, and emo bands waiting in the wings, ready to jump into the fray. And to take those genres to new heights—and new lows—of popularity.
As we all do at any decade’s end, we look back on the previous 10 years, searching for patterns, for some kind of meaning. For clarity, if you will. When I hear Clarity, and Black Sails In The Sunset, and Waiting, and Calculating Infinity, and so many of the other great albums of 1999 that seemed to symbolize death and rebirth on the cusp of the 21st century, this was what’s clear to me now: Punk is like energy itself. You can channel it, and you can change it, but it can never really be destroyed.
Next month: Okay, there is no next month. Much like Born Against and Refused, Fear Of A Punk Decade is fucking dead. But for those of you who are going to miss our monthly marathons down the corridors of punk history, I have a consolation prize: Sometime in the coming weeks I’ll be leading a Music Roundtable on ’90s punk with my A.V. Club comrades David Anthony, Annie Zaleski, and Josh Modell. Together we’ll lay a wreath on Fear Of A Punk Decade by hashing out our different experiences, evaluations, and favorites from the canon of ’90s punk. Keep your eyes peeled and join us, won’t you? And please accept my heartfelt thanks for reading, commenting, and/or otherwise engaging Fear Of A Punk Decade over the past year. See you in the pit. Until then, never forget.